Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Ghost Story

My grandmother first told me this story when I was about ten years old. It is a tale of a past vicar of Ranworth Church and his dog. She said she had been told it when she was a child before the First World War and it is, I am sorry to to report to lovers of gore, the kind of ghost story that could be quite properly told to an Edwardian child. It had stayed in her mind because it featured a faithful dog and that was the kind of story (Black Beauty, Beautiful Joe) she liked and if not exactly local to her in those pre motor car days(she lived in Fundenhall some 25 miles away!) it was at least set in the same county.

This vicar of St Helen's Church, Ranworth in the county of Norfolk had a dog who would follow him everywhere; even into church when he conducted services. If he was not allowed to follow his master the dog would sit outside and howl loud enough to drown out the service. At last the vicar gave in and allowed the dog to follow him into the Church but only after the congregation had agreed to allow him to build a gate onto the communion rail to keep the animal out of the Sanctuary and away from the altar.

The dog lived for several more years, attending every service that his master officiated at but finally he died.

"And they do say" continued my grandmother in the best tradition of these stories "that even today if you walk around the churchyard you will feel a snuffling at your heels because the ghost of this dog continues to haunt Ranworth"

There is, of course, a sub-text. This is not a ghost story but (it sounds to me) an elaborate satirical joke about Ranworth and the High Anglican Church. Whether a Church has a gate on its altar rail or not was one of the markers as to whether it is high or not. If it is a satire then one can only presume that the dog is supposed to stand as a metaphor for the Oxford Movement or Anglo-Catholicism or the suchlike. And the ghost of the dog, the story goes, lives on in Ranworth...... That is my theory anyway.

As far as I know my grandmother, and she was no fool where these matters were concerned, saw it as just a ghost story to tell her ten year old grandson. My theory is that as a young girl she was handed in the street or elsewhere one of the many anti-Catholic pamphlets that were circulating at the time; this one aimed at what was seen as the Popish leanings at Ranworth. Her eye missed all the bits about purple plots and the malign influence of Rome and just settled on the story of the Vicar and the dog because that was, as I have already explained, a story that would have attracted her.

Unless, of course, you have walked Widdershins around Ranworth Church and felt a snuffling at your heels.

Links: My photographs of Ranworth Church are here. The Norfolk Churches Site entry about Ranworth is here

St Helen's Ranworth Graveyard and Oak tree
St Helen's Ranworth Graveyard and Oak Tree

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